Skopje 2014: Back to the Future

Whether residents like it or not (and most seem not to), former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's controversial construction project redefined the Macedonian capital for the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2016 the government oversaw the construction of more than 20 new buildings and 40 new monuments in the area around the river, and the effect has been staggering. The intention was to give the city a more uniform appearance while bolstering Macedonian national pride by linking the modern state to its forerunners; but the final result is quite grotesque.

Ripples of discontent besmeared the project. Some of the monuments and museums, such as the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood & Independence, are so nationalistic that they border on the ridiculous, and the Macedonian credentials of some of the historic figures now standing watch over the city are debated (the inclusion of Alexander the Great and Philip II of Macedon, for example, are interpreted by many as broad snubs to the Greek government, who object to North Macedonia's interpretation of its ancient history). Disgruntled residents protested by colour-bombing the pearly white buildings in what became known as the 'colourful revolution'.

Historians point out that the neoclassical style of the new architecture is actually at odds with North Macedonia's Byzantine and Ottoman past and has no place in the city. Detractors also bemoan the tens – if not hundreds – of millions of euros spent on the project. Several of the river-front buildings, such as the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia and the High Court, have suffered flooding in their basements and already have issues with the foundations. It remains to be seen how the structures will bear up in coming years.

The Story of Skopje's Modern Architecture

After Skopje was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1963, killing 1070 people and destroying around 65% of the city, the Yugoslav government started the reconstruction of the Macedonian capital with help from international governments and the UN. Two years later Japanese architect Kenzo Tange was enlisted to help after the UN set up a master plan for rebuilding Skopje. Tange was one of the 20th-century's most prominent architects and promoter of the 'Metabolist movement' – an architectural movement in postwar Japan that fused the concepts of architectural megastructures and organic biological growth.

A design team of international and Yugoslav architects was formed and lead by Tange's team. Tange's plan included a 'City Gate', designed to concentrate business and traffic communication in the city centre, and residential buildings outside the 'Gate'. The complex plan aimed to build a sophisticated urban structure (which Tange thought was made easier by the lack of private land ownership in socialist Yugoslavia), celebrating the ability to implement progressive design in this 'revolutionary society'.

The plan itself was not entirely accomplished, but several modernist masterpieces survive in Skopje, including the train station, built by Kenzo Tange, with a vast elevated platform 15m above the ground. Other notable structures are the Sts Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje (1974), the country's largest university, designed by Marko Mušič; Janko Konstantinov's otherworldly Main Post Office, built in three stages in 1974, 1982 and 1989; his Telekom Office Building (1974); Nikola Karev High School (1968); the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (1977), designed by Blagoje Mickovskiego-Bajo; and the brilliant Macedonian National Opera and Ballet, by Biro 71, completed in 1981.